Not A Christmas Story

“The Well” by Elizabeth Jolley

“The Well” by Elizabeth Jolley is about as far from Christmas reading as any novel could be. It is about loneliness, obsession brought about by emotional impoverishment, and throwing human bodies down wells. “The Well” happens to be the book I just completed, so I’m going to discuss it now, Christmas or not.

The novel takes place in a remote rural area of Australia. The novel centers on a middle-aged handicapped woman, Hester Harper, and the teenage girl living with her, Katherine. After a lifetime of loneliness, Hester has finally found someone to share her life with in the orphan Katherine who is only too happy to not spend any more time in institutions. But Katherine is growing up and becoming interested in more of the world than just Hester’s small rural place. Hester’s obsessive attempts to keep her young ward Katherine to herself are the center of this novel.

“The Well” can be described as a romance suspense novel. After reading two thirds of this novel the suspense becomes almost unbearable, but one must keep reading the story to find out what happens next. Perhaps the writer that Elizabeth Jolley most reminds me of is Daphne du Maurier, who also takes the suspense to nearly inhuman levels. Elizabeth Jolley was born in England and spent her first 36 years there before emigrating to western Australia. “The Well” has that special oddness I’ve come to expect from Australian novels. Jolley won Australia’s top literary prize, the Miles Franklin Award, for this novel. “The Well” was made into a movie in 1997. This is a short well-written novel, an excellent read.

So if you want a novel to counteract the over-sentimentality and the good will of the Christmas season, “The Well” would be the book for you.

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12 responses to this post.

  1. LOL Tony…good point. I guess you’ve seen my second Favourite Writers post – it’s Elizabeth Jolley. It makes me sad, actually, that she is so little known outside of Australia. She has an oddness all of her own I think – but loneliness and isolation are big themes for her as is the difficulty of maintaining longterm relationships. Interesting comparison with Du Maurier. I hadn’t thought of that – and it’s a long time since I read her but you have a point. Du Maurier’s characters though are perhaps more conventional?

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  2. Hi Whisperinggums,
    Your point is exactly right. In Daphne du Maurier’s novels, usually the main protagonist is a fairly normal young woman faced with a terrifying situation. In Jolley’s novels the main protagonist is not at all normal, but is bent out of shape by excessive loneliness. I had read your Elizabeth Jolley posts earlier, but I wish I had re-read them before I wrote this entry. One of the things I love about Australian literature is Australian authors’ willingness to face up to their own oddness, whereas English and American authors are too desperate to fit in with the crowd to reveal their oddness. By now you must realize I have a special affection for Australian literature. I have previously read Jolley’s Foxybaby, but it has been so long ago that I couldn’t refer to it at all meaningfully.

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  3. Thanks Tony … yes, I was rather starting to gather that there was perhaps more behind your taking up my Marjorie Barnard suggestion than simple interest in that suggestion alone. Where does this interest come from?

    It’s interesting to here an “outsider’s” opinion of our literature. You’ve made me think a little more about this. I’m going to be very simplistic: Australians are pretty open (which Americans are too) and pretty self-deprecating (which the Brits tend to be too). Perhaps it’s a combination of that which leads to our particular brand of writing. Must admit that I hadn’t thought American and English authors arewere “too desperate to fit in with the crowd” – but will think a bit more about this (after Christmas probably though!).

    BTW We are aware, over here, that our films can tend to have a special kind of “quirkiness”.

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    • Hi Whisperinggums,
      My love of Australian fiction stems from two writers – Henry Handel Richardson (Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson) and Patrick White. Somehow I found out about the “The Fortunes of Richard Mahony” trilogy, was absolutely stunned by the first book, quickly read the two others, and from then on Australian literature was something special for me. Then I discovered Patrick White who I consider the greatest novelist ever, bar none. If anyone ever asks me for a recent writer that compares with the classic writers such as Tolstoy or Shakespeare, I’ll say Patrick White is probably better than these. I know there are several websites out there completely devoted to Patrick White, and I understand why. I suspect that Patrick White read “The Fortunes of Richard Mahony”, because they both have that definable Australian style. Then I see David Malouf sort of as Patrick White’s offspring. I’m going to write an entry about the specialness of Australian literature as soon as I can express what it is.

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      • Now I have to confess that The fortunes of Richard Mahoney is on my TBR pile – I really should read it. and her Maurice Guest. However, I do agree with you re Patrick White being a wonderful writer though quite a few Aussies grown when you suggest reading him. I finally managed – with the support of a few others (I have to admit) – to get Voss on my bookgroup’s schedule for next year. It was my introduction to White and made me fall in love with him. I haven’t read all but all that I’ve read I’ve liked. The last one I read (and it was a re-read too) was The solid mandala. And yes, I sort of agree re Malouf though I hadn’t thought of it quite that way. I can see now, though, why you could see it that way. There are those of us who feel Malouf should be our next Nobel Literature prize winner. I think his writing is beautiful.

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      • I know that White recommended Malouf for the Nobel (from memory he wrote a letter calling him a remarkable young man, or words to that effect) but I’m not sure that I see the connection between their work – in other words, I’m not sure how Malouf can be considered the prose-child of White, beyond, perhaps, the fact that he tackles the whole man-alone-in-a-harsh-yet-mythically-sustaining-country idea – Gemmy vanishing into the countryside in Remembering Babylon as Voss disccolves into the countryside in Voss – and the how-do-Anglo-Australians-get-along-in-Australia idea. There are so many differences between them otherwise, I’m not sure it’s enough. Could you explain?

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        • No, not really which is why I said “I sort of agree” and the reason I said that was for the reasons you give – the mythical and, perhaps though differently, the almost mystical in them both. White otherwise seems more emotionally/psychologically intense, whilst Malouf is perhaps more intellectually/philosophically intense?? They are both perhaps more worldly – despite (or alongside) their Australianness – than say Winton. But this is a bit off the top of the head from thinking about a few books from each that stick in my head? So, I’m ready to shot down!

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          • Re. So, I’m ready to shot down!

            No, no, not shooting you down. I was responding to Tony’s point, and the Reply function put my comment below yours, that’s all.

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            • Oh no, I wasn’t offended or felt you were … it was a genuine statement, suggesting it was not a fully thought through idea but one based on some thinking on the spot …

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        • Hi DKS,
          The similarities between David Malouf and Patrick White. First, they had mutual respect for each other’s talents, although Malouf was very critical of a couple of White’s novels. Malouf did write the libretto for the operetta that was made out of Voss. I found the following in VisWiki. ” Malouf said that much of the male writing that preceded him ‘was about the world of action. I don’t think that was ever an accurate description of men’s lives’. He believes that it was Patrick White who turned this around in Australian writing—that White’s writing was the kind “that goes behind inarticulacy and or unwillingness to speak, writing that gives the language of feeling to people who don’t have it themselves”. Perhaps that is the main similarity I find between the two writers, the willingness to attempt to express the inarticulate. Also both writers have dealt with aboriginal society as well as other facets of Australia. I realize that Malouf’s novels are more taut and controlled, while White’s are more expansive and grandiose, but perhaps because they both write about Australia with which I am completely unfamiliar, they seemed similar to me in their vibes.

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          • “Perhaps that is the main similarity I find between the two writers, the willingness to attempt to express the inarticulate.” That makes sense. Thank you for explaining. Interesting that you should call Malouf “taut and controlled” and White “expansive and grandiose,” as I would have put them the other way round – but then I’m thinking of the voice, where I believe you’re thinking of the stories and themes, so we’re coming at it from different starting points. (In other words, I’m thinking of the long sentences Malouf has sometimes used, verses the short, angular sentences White preferred, and that Victorian shorthand – “In the circumstances she did not dare” – “There was a clash of onyx and cornelian” – etc – that gives White a breathless, dramatic quality, absent in the more relaxed Malouf. Even White’s longer sentences tend to be broken into angles – I’m thinking of things like this:

            “Mrs Bonner had come out in a rash, due to the particularly humid summer, or to the shortage of green vegetables at Sydney (neither would she be robbed), or sometimes she would attribute her physical distress – privately, in case any of her family should laugh – attribute it to the impossible situation …”

            … etc, etc, jerking us from one thing to another, where Malouf’s long sentences lope along to closure:

            “It is the earth as we have made it, clearing, grafting, transplanting, carrying from one place to another, following no plan that we could enunciate, but allowing our bellies to lead us, and some other, deeper hunger, till the landscape we have made reveals to us the creature we long for and must become.”)

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  4. Hello everyone, thaxn a lot for this article ….. This is exactly what I was lookign for.

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